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On “Post-Kemalism” or How to Stop Worrying about Politics and Love History

Ahmet Kuyaş


How can we explain the fact that an impartial history of the Turkish revolution, understood in its broadest sense, i.e. from 1908 to the early 1940s, has yet to be written? The explanation lies in the fact that, in Turkey, the writing of history has never ceased to mirror political contention. Just as the old official "Kemalist" historiography was systematically revisited from the 1980s onwards, so the so-called "post-Kemalist" historiography needs to be critically examined. This history will have to take account of the plurality of tendencies (liberalism, ultra-nationalism, anti-imperialism) within an overall project that, despite its contradictions and gropings, can be defined as democratic and developmentalist; it will take account of the socio-cultural realities of a country that was still underdeveloped, without neglecting the international context, marked by European wars and colonization. Finally, it will avoid the presentist bias that selectively seeks the supposed causes of the current political situation in the more or less distant past.

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1When I was reading the introductory chapter of a recent book on the transnational dimensions of “Kemalism”, I recalled a well-known Bektaşi story. This is about a Bektaşi who happened to be in a mosque, listening to the sermon of the imam. The latter was explaining God to the congregation: “He in no way resembles anything you might know. He is not fathered and He did not father. You cannot see Him; He is to be found neither on this earth nor in the heavens. He does not eat, nor does He drink. He does not rest; He does not sleep. He does belong neither to space nor to time. He does not have hands, ears, or a tongue…” Upon hearing all this, the Bektaşi exclaims: “You want to say that He does not exist, hoca, but you do not dare to spit it out”. As a matter of fact, the authors were describing so brilliantly how the word “Kemalism” has so far been used in historiography to designate various historical processes or political programmes that have nothing in common, that it seemed as if they were going to deny any cognitive value to the appellation for it has been a platter which can be served with many a different sauce. Unfortunately, they stopped where our Bektaşi spoke up. I believe nevertheless that the rest of this very informative book is composed of excellent articles which analyse how Albanians, Bosnians, Muslim Turks of Bulgaria, etc. perceived what was happening in Turkey in the 1920s and 30s and how they chose to replicate or not the different characteristics of the ongoing Turkish transformation (Clayer, Giomi, Szurek 2019).

  • 1 For a few examples, see C.H.P. Programı, Ankara, 1935, p. 4, C. H. P. Dördüncü Büyük Kurultayı Dile (...)
  • 2 For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s autorship of the book, see Afet İnan 1969.

2To put it bluntly, I am of the opinion that no such thing as “Kemalism” existed in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s lifetime. First of all, there has never been, in the 1920s and 30s, an official discourse or a body of texts that can be considered as similar to the respective catechisms that Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, or Maoism have developed for themselves. It is true that the word Kemalizm or Kamâlizm appeared in Republican People’s Party (RPP) publications between the years 1935 and 1939. But it was always used to sum up the Six Arrows (republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism, and revolutionarism), the basic principles of the party program, without any reference whatsoever to a particular ideology.1 As for Atatürk, he never accepted this appellation as a term that would describe some sui generis ideology proper to Turkey. He was opposed to the efforts of defining his regime with a single word. When Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu asked why he was opposed to articulate in the form of an ideology the revolutionary programme that the RPP was putting in practice, he said, “by doing so, we would get frozen and trapped” (Karaosmanoğlu 1981: 137). This is also the reason why the book of civic instruction, Vatandaş İçin Medenî Bilgiler, which Atatürk authored to a great extent, does not bear his name (Afet İnan 1930)2. He simply did not want to associate his name with the political realities of the time.

3It is probably after the reading of this civic instruction book that Ahmet Cevat (Emre) coined the word “Kemalism” in an article published in Muhit in July 1930. The author himself was going to define the word as a “school of democracy of which all the political principles are clearly enunciated” in yet another article published in April 1931 (Ertan 1997: 26-28). But in the midst of the world economic crisis, and after the episode of the Republican Free Party during which the statist economic policy of the regime was publicly voiced, the word had a different resonance among nationalist circles. On December 2, 1930, Ali Naci (Karacan), a journalist who had great sympathy for Fascism, was writing in İnkılâp that “like communism in Russia and fascism in Italy we should have a Kemalism of our own” (Tunçay 1999: 276). After its inclusion in the RPP program in 1935, the word “Kemalism” was going to appear in the titles of three books, all written by individuals known for their ultranationalist stands. These are Mehmet Şeref Aykut’s Kamâlizm (1936), Tekinalp’s Kemalizm (1936), and Mehmet Safvet Engin’s Kemalizm İnkılâbının Prensipleri (1938).

4This attitude of the ultranationalists can best be understood by examining the mental cast that characterized many individuals who belonged to the revolutionary generation that we commonly name as the Young Turks. This mental cast had three components: nationalism, an ill-defined “anti-imperialism”, and the economic, political, and, to a certain extent, civilisational crisis that the Western world underwent during the interwar period. First of all, Turkish nationalism was, from the very start, imbued with a love-hate relationship with the West. Emin Bülent (Serdaroğlu) had written after the Balkan War:

  • 3 Garbın cebîn ü zâlimi, affetmedim seni, Türküm ve düşmanım sana kalsam da bir kişi”. The poem in q (...)

I have not forgiven you, the West, my cowardly oppressor,
Turks will remain your enemy until dies their last survivor!

5Then, this nationalistic fervour was transformed into anti-imperialism after the Bolshevik Revolution to such an extent that the Anatolian War of 1920-1922 was officially named War of Independence (İstiklâl Harbi). Finally, one after the other came Oswald Spengler, the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to imagine that all Turks would be willing to share the decaying world of those imperialists who had dismembered their empire and against whom they had fought a “war of independence”. Thus, the advent of the Six Arrows was interpreted by some RPP members not as a transient policy on the way towards Western democracy, but as a permanent and original, i.e. “home-grown and national” way of doing things.

  • 4 The book was published in Istanbul in 1935. The author himself made the title into a more appropria (...)

6Neither was the Turkish left spared from this nationalistic dérapage. The journal Kadro (1932-1935), under the intellectual leadership of a former pan-Turanist and communist, Şevket Süreyya Aydemir, started to develop a theory of national emancipation (millî kurtuluş), a forerunner of 1970’s Third-Worldism. According to this theory, Turkey was supposed to set the example for the colonial world with her principle of statism. Formerly colonial nations would imitate Turkey and, without falling into the trap of capitalism, would avoid class struggle and evolve towards socialism under the guidance of a voluntaristic cadre. Another leftist intellectual, Hüseyin Avni Şanda, who was to be read extensively by the Turkish left in the 1960s and 70s, wrote on the workers’ protests and strikes of 1908 as “the first uprisings against foreign capital” (Ecnebi Sermayesine Karşı İlk Kalkınmalar).4

  • 5 From Sir Percy Loraine to Sir John Simon, June 20, 1934, see Şimşir 2006: 73-75..
  • 6 Early in 1936, Hadiye Akturgan, an Oxford-educated professor of English in the Gazi Institute of Ed (...)

7By the end of the 1930s there was no sign of these particularistic approaches to the Turkish Revolution. International relations, once again, were going to be decisive in the course that Turkish politics took. The process started in 1934 with the poker game that Atatürk played with the British ambassador, Sir Percy Loraine.5 Turkish apprehensiveness with respect to Mussolini’s aggressive homilies had led Atatürk to be very direct: Turkey wished to make friends with Great Britain. The rest seems to have been accomplished to a great extent by Sir Percy (Gülmez 2019). In 1936, the Montreux Convention was signed, the contract to build the Karabük iron and steel plant was given to a British firm despite extensive German efforts to acquire it, King Edward VIII visited Atatürk in Istanbul and the Turkish fleet left the Turkish continental waters for the first time to visit the British naval base in Malta6. This western inclination reverberated in internal politics with the ousting of Recep Peker, the pro-fascistic Secretary-General of the RPP and the end of the ban to publish for Ahmet Emin Yalman, the well-known liberal journalist to whom the good news was given by Atatürk himself (Yalman 1997: 1053-1059). The following year, when İsmet İnönü had to leave the prime ministry, the office was offered to Celâl Bayar despite the fact that the latter’s position in the party had not been as preeminent as to justify the appointment. Yet, as the founding director-general of the Business Bank (İş Bankası) he was the most significant representative of the private sector in the party apparatus.

  • 7 The reason why the university was chosen as the location of the speech is the “quest for liberty” w (...)
  • 8 Minister of Education Hasan Âli Yücel had written to Ankara University’s Faculty of Language, Histo (...)
  • 9 Şükrü Kaya was going to translate the history of the French Revolution by Albert Mathiez, an admire (...)

8When İnönü succeeded Atatürk as President of the Republic and head of the RPP, the course of Turkish politics continued in the same vein. Of course, Metin Toker’s indirect suggestion that İnönü would have ushered in a democratic regime much earlier had the Second World War not erupted is far too exaggerated (Toker 1990: 15-18). But it is not entirely unfounded. In 1939, shortly before the parliamentary elections, İnönü took the floor in Istanbul University to tell his audience of enthusiastic students that “it would not be possible to speak of a popular government without the nation’s true and effective supervision of the administration” (Toker 1990: 17).7 The same year the merger of the administrative hierarchy with the party structure was terminated. The following year, the centennial of the Tanzîmât was celebrated, putting thus an end to the historiographic distance that the republican regime had so far kept with 19th century Ottoman reforms. Again in 1940, Namık Kemal’s birth centenary was commemorated with an attractive set of postage stamps, marking thus the reinstatement of the poet as a respectable forerunner of the Turkish modernization.8 In 1941, Prime Minister Refik Saydam was going to ask Ahmet Hamdi Akseki, the Deputy Director of Religious Affairs, to prepare an administrative white paper for the eventual opening of imam-hatip schools (Köksal 2017: 46-47). The return of the former PRP leaders to the Parliament continued under the presidency of İnönü, with Kâzım Karabekir, Rauf Orbay and Adnan Adıvar. Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın, the outspoken champion of liberalism, also returned to the Parliament in 1939. In contrast, some radicals such as Tevfik Rüştü Aras, Şükrü Kaya and Mahmut Esat Bozkurt were never to be reelected. There has been a lot of hearsay about the end of the political careers of these individuals. But the truth about them is somewhat closer to the veteran journalist Yalçın’s interpretation of Şükrü Kaya’s removal from the cabinet in November 1938. Yalçın wrote, “We are inclined to take the change that occurred in the Ministry of the Interior as auspicious news about the broad, tolerant and liberal signs in the field of internal politics” (Aydemir 1967: 28).9 This might also be an additional explanation of Atatürk’s choice of Bayar as premier in 1937 instead of Kaya who, as the Secretary General of the RPP and Minister of the Interior, was the third strong man of the regime at that time.

9We will never know how Atatürk would have proceeded. And the fact that the RPP’s liberalisation has reached almost the proportions of populism in the period 1945-1950 and that this policy had a domino effect on the Democrat Party (DP) which positioned itself further to the right will certainly be debated for a long time to come. It can be even argued that İnönü completely mismanaged the return to the multi-party system. The terrible economic recession and the subsequent popular resentment that it created during the Second World War may have unsaddled İnönü whose principal aim was to keep Turkey out of the war. But in the first few years of his mandate as president, the Turkish Revolution kept its pace. The opening of the Village Institutes (Köy Enstitüleri) was an outright revolutionary undertaking. The translation of the masterpieces of Western literature, the artistic activities of the State Conservatory and the yearly exhibitions of paintings and sculptures in Ankara were perfectly in line with Atatürk’s vision.

  • 10 An early example was the publication of the book Hitler ve Nasyonal Sosyalizm ([Baban] Cihat Hikmet (...)

10Seen from this angle, the reason why Atatürk did not want to associate his name with the political reality of the early 1930s gets clearer. He simply did not rationalise his historical mission as inherently original. For him and many others who understood him at the time, the Turkish Revolution was no more than an effort to squeezing Turkey into the industrialised and democratic Western world, and some of its various particularities were just improvised, mostly misconceived, impulsive measures, characteristic of a nascent nation-state afflicted by a multi-faceted underdevelopment. Then, the international situation in the mid-1930s created a danger in Turkish political circles in that sympathizers or would-be imitators of the Italian and German regimes were getting more and more vocal.10 But the same situation offered him also an opportunity and he made a swift move to seize it in perfect accord with his long-term project.

  • 11 C. H. F. Nizamnamesi ve Programı, Ankara, T. B. M. M. Matbaası, 1931, p. 31.
  • 12 For a good example to this approach, see Atılgan, Saraçoğlu, Uslu 2015.

11There is another reason why the word “Kemalism” should not be used to describe the sum total of what has been put into practice until the decision to join the Western democracies. The word would be misleading, for it would leave aside the Second Constitutional Monarchy and reduce the revolutionary process to the republican era alone. It should be remembered that the formula of national sovereignty was heard in the Parliament practically every day during the deliberations relative to the constitutional amendments of early 1909. As a consequence, parliamentarian supremacy was definitively established in August of the same year. High schools for girls opened after 1912, teachers’ training colleges for women increased in numbers even during World War One years, and female students started to attend courses in Istanbul University in the autumn of 1914. The Family Law Decree established monogamy for Muslims in 1917. Both the unification of the educational system under the Ministry of Education and the unification of the judiciary under the authority of the Ministry of Justice were accomplished in 1916. Intense debates took place within the Central Committee of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) with respect to the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the Gregorian calendar. Last but not least, a whole literature emerged on the necessity to create an ethnically Turkish bourgeois class, a social engineering policy that the Unionists implemented to a great extent after 1913. This policy continued under the Republic, even at the peak of statism. The definition of statism in the RPP Program of 1931 began with the words, “Accepting individual initiative and activity as fundamental (Ferdî mesai ve faaliyeti esas tutmakla beraber)…”11 At this point, the conceptual problem that non-Marxist historians such as myself have to surmount is that we do not possess the theoretical comfort that Marxists display when they refer to a “bourgeois revolution”.12

  • 13 “Congrès de Salonique. Résolutions secrètes du Comité Union et Progrès”, attachment to the letter f (...)

12The problem is quite serious, because, during both the Second Constitutional Monarchy and in the 1920s, the revolutionaries maltreated first and foremost the supposedly liberal bourgeois circles. The formula “supporter les Conservateurs et persécuter sans merci les libéraux”, accepted in secret during the 1910 Congress of the CUP13, was at work also in the First Grand National Assembly (GNA) and during the suppression of the Progressive Republican Party (PRP). I will not dwell at length on the central role that the Second Group in the First GNA and the PRP play in the historiographic discourse that has been recently defined as “post-Kemalist” (Aytürk 2015: 34-47). Suffice it to say here that the “post-Kemalist” discourse surmises that Turkey’s democratic deficit is largely due to the fact that these supposedly democratic formations have been short-lived. Moreover, there is a sub-discourse that claims that Turkey would have achieved what she has already achieved without going through the jacobin dictatorship that RPP has inflicted on her. Let us consider, for a moment then, that the country which had universal male suffrage since April 3, 1923, gave a majority vote to the PRP in 1927 or to the Republican Free Party in 1931. How could one expect democratic life to flourish in a less urbanised Turkey, less literate and much poorer than in the 1950s or the Ak Parti era? It has to be noted here that such a “liberal” takeover would have also greatly harmed the development of the Turkish economy and probably transformed Mustafa Kemal into a Turkish Simón Bolívar.

  • 14 Industrialised Czechoslovakia was the only exception with her democratic regime.

13Comparative history might be of help here. I do not think that it is a coincidence that East and South-East European countries, from Poland all the way down to Greece, have been governed by military or quasi-military regimes between the two world wars.14 These were all poor countries with very low urban population and literacy percentages similar to those of Turkey and with only a handful of urban elites who were not capable of transforming on their own their homelands into fully Westernised nation-states. Some of them have indeed evolved towards Fascism or Nazism for various national and international reasons. But Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece, together with Turkey, have eventually sided with Western democracies. What was at work in those countries was a set of dictatorships whose aim was to convert their respective societies into democratic nations through non-democratic means. We should perhaps consider recasting the famous RPP motto of the 1930s, “for the people, despite the people” as “for the bourgeoisie, despite the bourgeoisie”. Thus, it would not be too far-fetched to contend that the idea of a “developmentalist revolution” should be retained as a working formula in studying the Turkish Revolution.

  • 15 The publication by Atılgan, Saraçoğlu, Uslu (2015) remains the only exception. It has to be noted, (...)

14The history of this Revolution has not been properly written yet. It had been partially covered in the early 1960’s in two books by Bernard Lewis and Richard D. Robinson (Lewis 1967; Robinson, 1963). First published in 1993, and reedited several times since then, the Dutch historian Erik J. Zürcher’s book Turkey: A Modern History is the only volume that covers the Revolution in full (Zürcher 1993). It has the merit of pointing at the continuity between the Second Constitutional Monarchy and the early Turkish Republic, but bears the defects that practically all revolutionary histories are filled with on a global level since the advent of neo-liberalism. As it can be seen from the aforementioned names, Turks have not yet produced a history of their Revolution.15 This is partly due to the unsettled political atmosphere of the country which has been in constant turmoil for the past sixty to seventy years. And contemporary history has been a significant battle-ground in this political turmoil. Almost anything that happened during the first half of the 20th century is part and parcel of the discourses deployed in the intense political struggle that still goes on in our day, and even the most uninformed observer of things Turkish cannot fail to notice this ubiquity of references to the past with only a superficial gaze at the daily press, the television programs, and the social media. To put it differently, one might say that if the history of the Revolution has not yet been written, it is because the dust of the revolutionary upheaval has not settled yet.

15The lack of a comprehensive history of the Turkish Revolution might be also due to the fact that grand narratives are not fashionable in our day. This could have been an interesting line of inquiry, had the Revolution itself not been out of fashion as well. As a matter of fact, the ever increasing interest in humanities and social sciences that one witnesses in Turkey for the last thirty years or so, has produced a very rich corpus of monographs that dwell on different episodes and various aspects of the revolutionary period. Yet, this rich literature does not lend itself to the writing of an impartial history of the Revolution for the simple fact that it is almost completely anti-revolutionary.

16How did this happen? First of all, one has to single out the winds of neo-liberalism that have brought about on a global level new political and economic avenues and, more significantly from our perspective, revisionist historiographies that devalue revolutions in general. Robert Darnton contended at the beginning of the 1980s that the French Revolution was the brainchild of the ratés of the Old Regime (Darnton 1982). The idea was so much welcomed in France that even a middle-of-the-road figure such as Max Gallo felt compelled to publish his Lettre ouverte à Maximilien Robespierre sur les nouveaux muscadins (Gallo 1986). Then, towards the end of the decade, and for that matter, on the occasion of its bicentennial, Simon Schama reduced the French Revolution to sans-culotte violence (Schama 1989). In the ensuing few years, the communist bloc, already much shaken by Michael Gorbachev’s perestroika movement, collapsed. And all these had their effects on the Turkish liberal left.

17The winds of neo-liberalism reached Turkey almost immediately. The fact that the country was since September 12, 1980, under the iron fist of a military dictatorship who unashamedly used Atatürk as a source of both inspiration and legitimacy added insult to injury in democratic circles. It is under these circumstances that the liberal left intellectuals who were dominant in academia and the mass media have turned their backs to the Turkish Revolution. This in its turn had a negative effect on the world view of the very first generation of resourceful students in humanities and social sciences which, until then, had not been the forte of Turkish universities, except for a few towering figures. Since then, the history of the Revolution became the story of the dictatorship of the bloodthirsty leadership of the CUP who did nothing but assassinate opposition journalists, and exterminate the Armenians, and of vicious republicans who deliberately mass-murdered Alevites and Kurds and forced Anatolian Greeks to flee to Greece. According to this historical discourse, although these supposedly revolutionary cadres constantly spoke of national sovereignty, they never let a government for the people and by the people arise, for they were never ready to relinquish their tutelary power. As a military bunch, they crippled the nation’s humanitarian instincts and forged a militaristic society where a truly civilian and democratic culture is unable to thrive. Thus, the new historical discourse implied that if Turkey, after decades of republican history, was still an undemocratic country, the source of this vital shortcoming had to be found in this allegedly revolutionary era. The more Turkey distanced herself from revering that era, the more would she be close to achieving democracy.

  • 16 See Kuyaş 2015: 28; reprinted as “Demokrat olabilecek miyiz?” in Kuyaş 2016: 162-163.

18This approach was criticised in 2015 by İlker Aytürk, a professor of political science in Ankara’s Bilkent University, under the appellation of “post-Kemalism” (Aytürk 2015). As far as I am concerned, it was a most welcome initiative, all the more so since I had criticized the same historical discourse, though much more succinctly, only one month before the publication of Aytürk’s article.16 I was particularly gratified by two aspects of his argument which are very significant from the perspective of historical method. His first and very pertinent contention was that the “post-Kemalist” discourse did not contextualise its subject-matter. “Kemalists” and Unionists stood in this discourse as if they had been beamed from another planet (Aytürk 2015: 42). There was no attempt whatsoever to elucidate the circumstances which created this generation. This flaw, in my opinion, would be quite enough to discard the entire “post-Kemalist” discourse as ahistorical. As a matter of fact, the late Ottoman world’s cohort of complexities, perplexities, traumas, fears and despairs are totally absent in the approach in question. The atmosphere of instability of the inter-war years was not taken into the account either. Moreover, there is no reference to the formation of the revolutionary personnel which was in perfect accord with, and in fact borrowed directly from, the ultranationalist and bellicose fervour that prevailed in pre-World War One France and Germany who were getting ready to settle the outstanding account of 1870. When one reads the “post-Kemalist” monographs, one could easily imagine that all happened in an age-old and insulated nation-state called Turkey, and thus, could learn more about their authors’ time and its sensitivities than the past they were supposed to relate. I guess there is in this approach a Monsieur Jourdain-like reception of the post-modern critique, very similar to the blatant dimension of ridicule proper to the flirtations of the early republican period with the West-European-made but long-abandoned pseudo-scientific theories of race. I believe that the critique of the so-called objectivity in historical narratives was put to practice by these politically motivated “post-Kemalists” in such a naive manner that they utterly fell into the opposite trap of presentism as criticised so brilliantly by an unjustly neglected Adam Schaff (Schaff 1976: 77-110). They had not yet learnt this cautionary lesson elegantly given by Eric Hobsbawm:

The lawyers’ and bureaucrats’ search for precedent is entirely present-oriented. Its object is to discover the legal rights of today, the solution of modern administrative problems, whereas for the historian, however interested in their relation to the present, it is the difference of circumstances which is significant (Hobsbawm 1998: 30).

19Aytürk’s second contention which is no less pertinent than the preceding one was that the entire span of time after World War Two was absent in the “post-Kemalist” discourse. He argued that the historical knowledge which had been accumulated thus far did not warrant pointing exclusively to the years 1908-1945, if we are to understand the problems that Turkey had to tackle with in her ongoing quest for democracy. As a teacher of modern Turkish history, I cannot agree more with what he says, firstly on the lack of titles to include in bibliographies relative to post-World War Two years, and secondly on the utmost shortage of reliable biographies of important political figures of that period (Aytürk 2015: 44). There were, however, two significant methodological problems inherent to Aytürk’s argument.

20Aytürk, like the protagonists of the “post-Kemalist” discourse whom he criticised, has an account to settle with the elitist tutelage that Turkey suffers from. It is a very legitimate and necessary stance. This being said, he had two grave weaknesses in his overview of tutelary elitism throughout Turkish history. The first weakness was that he brought into the discussion more than a millenium of history when he argued that the period 1908-1945 should not be singled out as the only era of tutelary elitism (Aytürk 2015: 42). He was not aware of the fact that by asking the question, “Is there a period in history when the Turkish society was not governed by elitism?” he exhibited an essentialism similar to the age-old “military spirit” that at least one “post-Kemalist”, namely Mehmet Altan, had assigned to Turks some twenty years ago (Altan 2001; Kuyaş 2003: 91). Thus, his analysis carried a determinism that can be likened more to nature than history as far as Turks are concerned, and showed a blindness with respect to European history, since Professor Aytürk may be reciprocated with the question, “How was Western Europe governed before the advent of democracy?”

21The second weakness, which overlaps to a great extent with the first one, is derived from the fact that Aytürk apparently approves the neo-liberal disposition of those whom he criticised. By contending that Turks have been living under tutelary, elitist regimes for more than a millenium, he did not make a distinction between the ancien régime and the revolutionary period nor with what came afterwards. Obviously, he did not see a Turkish Revolution that took place in the first half of the 20th century. Otherwise, he would have not lumped the revolutionary jacobinism of the 1930s together with Kenan Evren’s military regime and Tayyip Erdoğan’s competitive authoritarianism. But this works against any meaningful critique of the so-called “post-Kemalist” discourse for it comes to argue that enough has been said on the “Kemalists” and that now we have to look into the origins of the present-day competitive authoritarianism. This means that we are back to square one as far as presentism is concerned.

22Before examining Aytürk’s response to the discussions that his article ushered in, I would like to make some remarks on both the expressions “post-Kemalism” and “post-post-Kemalism” that he uses and his overall evaluation of “post-Kemalism”s contribution to our historical knowledge. The expression “post-kemalism” is not new, and he acknowledges it. But he adds that he does not use it with the same political meaning with which it was first used (Aytürk 2015: 35). I have already explained that “Kemalism” is a meaningless word, that it does not have any clearcut content, and that it has been used haphazardly to name a variety of incommensurate phenomena. I must confess I was rather surprised to see that Professor Aytürk had joined the lot by his terminological choice. And the fact that what he calls “post-Kemalism” starts in the early 1980s means that we have to name as “Kemalist” every single authority and discourse seen between 1945 and 1980. This brings us back to the argument I have exposed in my introductory paragraphs.

  • 17 For the book, see Bora 2021a. For the review co-authored by Ayhan Aktar and İştar Gözaydın, and the (...)

23As for “post-post-Kemalism”, I think it is a rather awkward appellation, to say the least. If I am not wrong, two consecutive “post”s make one “neo” in social sciences, and I am afraid that this can be used by people who belong to Aytürk’s category of “post-Kemalists” to criticise him as the harbinger of some “neo-Kemalism”. As it can be seen clearly from recent developments, Atatürk’s popularity has significantly increased lately. From my historian’s perspective, I consider this phenomenon as an immature popular reaction to what has been going on in the country for the last two decades. Fortunately for all of us, it has not been converted by the academic circles into what Professor Aytürk would call a “paradigm”. But it seems that a recent biography of İnönü’s Minister of Education Hasan Âli Yücel has been rather unjustly belittled as an expression of “Kemalist nostalgia” by two academics who fall into the category of “post-Kemalists”. I have not yet read the book. But I read this particular negative review, two responses to that review, and the author’s own response. This was enough to convince me that some “post-Kemalists” are not yet ready to digest a historical discourse that has the virtues of distance and understanding.17

24In his critique of the “post-Kemalist” discourse, Aytürk argues that this approach to Turkish history “will remain as a significant episode in modern Turkish studies” and that it will be used as a basis for further accumulation of knowledge in that field (Aytürk 2015: 45). This can be considered as an indirect way of acknowledging that the said discourse has had a significant contribution to the critique of the so-called “Kemalist” historiography. I too believe that no serious historian or social scientist of twentieth-century Ottoman Empire and Turkey can deny the valuable input of positive knowledge that the “post-Kemalist” discourse has so far brought about. But I also believe that this input is mostly limited to factual history and falls short of constituting a scholarly revision for the aforementioned reasons. The comprehensive history of the Turkish Revolution that we are still waiting for will certainly take into account those facts that “post-Kemalist” studies have put a stress on. But it will avoid both the anachronistic premises on which these facts were scrutinised and the public prosecutor’s style in which most of them were presented.

25Professor Aytürk’s article roused a well-deserved and widespread interest, and stimulated a fertile debate. As a response to a number of both favourable and adverse critiques that his article prompted, he published in 2020 a second article in the same review (Aytürk 2020). In this new article, Aytürk answers back some of his critics. This dialogue which he engages in, while helping him to explain better his position as conflicting with the “post-Kemalist” discourse, also exhibits in a much clearer manner the shortcomings of the said discourse as well as the weaknesses of his own standpoint.

  • 18 For the article in question, see Esen 2014: 600-620.

26One of the best features of Aytürk’s second article is the fact that he shows in a more direct manner that the single-party period is not characterised by a clear-cut ideology. He had already touched upon this point with a short reference to Berk Esen’s important article which compares the RPP with other revolutionary parties and concludes that the RPP was not as monolithic a party as it was traditionally assumed by the existing historiography (Aytürk 2015: 45).18 Aytürk’s new article returns to the issue by going through a set of important figures of the RPP and shows that the party staff was made of ideologically incongruent people who, in due course of time, were going to make their own ways anyhow.

27What is even more commendable in his second article is that Aytürk lets the cat out of the bag and joins me in what I have already noted at the beginning of my article on the cognitive value of those words derived from Kemal Atatürk’s name. He clearly states that “it has been a long time we stopped meaning the same thing by using the word Kemalism.” (Aytürk 2020: 104). He then goes through a list of names of politicians and intellectuals who, although on the opposite sides of the political arena, sought nevertheless legitimacy and recognition in the name of Kemal Atatürk (Aytürk 2020: 106, 109). And this is the point where his greatest weakness is to be found. If, as a subject of intellectual debate and of historiographic revision those words are that meaningless, what on earth are we to understand from “post-Kemalism” and “post-post-Kemalism”? The debate becomes all the more meaningless since Aytürk, in response to one of his critics’ definition of “effective Kemalism”, asks the question, “Are we now supposed to accept Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an effective Kemalist?” (Aytürk 2020: 107).

28In this new article, Aytürk seems to have abandoned the idea of a millenium-old Turkish elitism cum political tutelage. He traces back this tradition to the reign of Mahmut II, but fails to make the most of the 19th century in favor of his standpoint and falls victim to the same kind of dialectics which he indirectly denounces as a characteristic of the “post-Kemalist” discourse. As a matter of fact, he makes good use of Abdülhamit II’s regime as a perfect fit to the description that one of his critics gives for “Kemalism”. Yet, instead of using Mahmut II’s absolutism and the subsequent Sublime Porte authoritarianism on the one hand, and the Young Ottoman opposition on the other, he refers in a footnote to the tensions around the Deed of Agreement (Sened-i ittifak) and misses the fact that it was the âyâns of Rumelia who saved Mahmut from the wrath of the janissaries (Aytürk 2020: 109). Those âyâns who pressured Mahmut to recognise them as such were at the same time partisans of a strong central state whose authority and wealth would be beneficial to their trades in the form of better roads, better policing and fairer taxation. Similarly, Aytürk could have shown to his detractors that sympathising with Namık Kemal in the name of liberty should not lead one to join the majority of the Ottoman grandees who stood up with sullen faces during the proclamation ceremony of the Islahât Rescript (Cevdet Paşa 1986: 67-69).

29This is exactly what he does when he comes to criticise Erik Jan Zürcher’s book on the PRP as an example of “post-Kemalist” historiography (Zürcher 1991). As it can be seen also in the afore-mentioned book by Mehmet Altan, there has been a tendency to accept all the opposition to Mustafa Kemal, be it during the Anatolian War or after, as liberal and democratic. I remember that this tendency was criticised in a short article by Cemil Koçak almost two decades ago (Koçak 2002: 20-21). In the same vein, Aytürk takes issue with Zürcher’s oblique contention that the PRP was a liberal formation whose existence was cut short by “jacobin Kemalists” (Aytürk 2020: 117). I cannot but agree with Aytürk; but I also believe that he does not make the most of this concept of jacobinism either. As a matter of fact, Aytürk and I can be eventually proven right or wrong as to our approach to PRP’s nature; but our debate pertains not to the attributes of this party, but to the reason why it was closed down.

30I have already exposed my ideas on the nature of the Turkish transformation between 1908 and the early 1940s. I have also said that Professor Aytürk is right when he claims that that era should not be singled out as the only reason for Turkey’s persistent predicament with respect to democracy. But I also believe that lumping together that period’s jacobin dictatorship with sultanic despotisms, right-wing competitive authoritarianisms, and military regimes inspired by the national security state theory inside a long tradition of political tutelage does not serve well his purpose. Not only because this is ahistorical, but it also works against the overt unease Aytürk displays vis-à-vis the image of “bad boy Turkish” that the “post-Kemalist” discourse tends to disseminate (Aytürk 2020: 117-118).

31Consequently, the history of the revolutionary jacobinism that Turkey went through needs reconsideration. And to this end, the revision of the “post-Kemalist” discourse is of equal necessity as the revision of the so-called “Kemalist” historiography. But this should be done with more reading into the sources, and with less attention to the daily broadsheets which Fernand Braudel avoided carefully. I know that history is the end result of a complex interaction of the past and the present. But the present here, is not the present-day socio-political experience that we live through. It is the present-day intellect which longs for a better future. The historian’s task, therefore, is not primarily the research into the roots of today’s troubles, but the research of what positivity can one find in the past as the material to build that better future on. If at peace with this task, the historian cannot but empathise with his/her subject matter. And empathy would bring better understanding and would put an end to one’s constant estrangement from one’s own society and history, a situation the so-called “post-Kemalist” discourse is engulfed in. We should not forget that the intellect has no chance whatsoever to win a war against the past which is shut out for good. But the struggle for a better future has all the chances to carry the day as long as it is carried out with passion.

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1 For a few examples, see C.H.P. Programı, Ankara, 1935, p. 4, C. H. P. Dördüncü Büyük Kurultayı Dilek Komisyonu Raporu, Ankara, 1935, p. 3, On Beşinci Yıl Kitabı, Istanbul, 1938, p. 9 and C.H.P. Programı, Ankara, 1939, p. 3. The title of the magazine La Turquie kemaliste (or kamâliste), published by the General Directorate of the Press in the years 1934-1949, should be read as “La Turquie de Kemal”.

2 For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s autorship of the book, see Afet İnan 1969.

3 Garbın cebîn ü zâlimi, affetmedim seni, Türküm ve düşmanım sana kalsam da bir kişi”. The poem in question was entitled “Kin” (Hatred), and had won to its author great fame and a golden watch offered on behalf of the nationalist literary society Genç Kalemler (The Young Pens); see Ortaç 1963. Şevket Süreyya Aydemir claims that his entire generation knew the poem by heart; see Aydemir 1971: 198. The above verses were inscribed in the conference hall of Konya Türk Ocağı (Turkish Hearth); see Kemal Atatürk 1945-1972: 144.

4 The book was published in Istanbul in 1935. The author himself made the title into a more appropriate Türkiye’de 54 Yıl Önceki İşçi Hareketleri in 1962.

5 From Sir Percy Loraine to Sir John Simon, June 20, 1934, see Şimşir 2006: 73-75..

6 Early in 1936, Hadiye Akturgan, an Oxford-educated professor of English in the Gazi Institute of Education, gave a talk in the BBC on women’s rights in Turkey. According to her daughter, she was chosen for the task and instructed personally by Atatürk; see Atasü 1995.

7 The reason why the university was chosen as the location of the speech is the “quest for liberty” which the students had been engaged in in 1934; see Baban 1970: 343-345.

8 Minister of Education Hasan Âli Yücel had written to Ankara University’s Faculty of Language, History and Geography on June 14, 1940, to ask for the publication of a book on Namık Kemal; see Namık Kemal Hakkında 1942: 8. For the RPP administration’s past approach to Namık Kemal, see Baban 1970 : 344. For the cautious responses of many celebrities to a survey on Namık Kemal, see Tahir 1936.

9 Şükrü Kaya was going to translate the history of the French Revolution by Albert Mathiez, an admirer of Robespierre, in 1940. I am not sure whether the translation of the Dantonist Alphonse Aulard’s history by the Turkish Historical Society in 1944 should be considered as the İnönü administration’s response to it. We should note here that Aras had very friendly feelings towards the USSR and Bozkurt named the book that he published after his dismissal (Bozkurt 1940), using a word that had always been avoided in the political circles.

10 An early example was the publication of the book Hitler ve Nasyonal Sosyalizm ([Baban] Cihat Hikmet, 1933). It would be interesting to note here that [Engin] Mehmet Safvet, whom we have seen as the author of Kemalizm İnkılâbının Prensipleri in 1938, had published in 1928 a book entitled Türkiye’de demokrasi inkılâbı.

11 C. H. F. Nizamnamesi ve Programı, Ankara, T. B. M. M. Matbaası, 1931, p. 31.

12 For a good example to this approach, see Atılgan, Saraçoğlu, Uslu 2015.

13 “Congrès de Salonique. Résolutions secrètes du Comité Union et Progrès”, attachment to the letter from Paul Lépissier (Salonica) to Stephen Pichon, January 26, 1911; Archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères, Nouvelle série, Turquie, vol. VIII, p. 15.

14 Industrialised Czechoslovakia was the only exception with her democratic regime.

15 The publication by Atılgan, Saraçoğlu, Uslu (2015) remains the only exception. It has to be noted, however, that this work belongs to the fields of political science and historical sociology rather than the field of history proper. As such, it is a byproduct of the extremely twisted academic structure of Turkish universities where “political history” means history of international relations and where modern history is smuggled into the curricula of the political science departments under the appellation of “Turkish political life”, in order to avoid the specialization called Cumhuriyet Tarihi (History of the Republic), a field created and still dominated by conservative admirers of Atatürk in the departments of history.

16 See Kuyaş 2015: 28; reprinted as “Demokrat olabilecek miyiz?” in Kuyaş 2016: 162-163.

17 For the book, see Bora 2021a. For the review co-authored by Ayhan Aktar and İştar Gözaydın, and the responses by Barış Özkul and Nuray Mert, see the website K24: For Tanıl Bora’s own response, see Bora 2021b: 56-66.

18 For the article in question, see Esen 2014: 600-620.

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Electronic reference

Ahmet Kuyaş, On “Post-Kemalism” or How to Stop Worrying about Politics and Love HistoryEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 35 | 2022, Online since 30 January 2023, connection on 16 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ahmet Kuyaş

Retired from Galatasaray University

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