Turkey celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its first Constitution, published on 20 January 1921. This Constitution was unique due to several reasons in the Turkish constitutional history although it remained in force only for three years. This transitional Constitution remained in effect for a short time because Mustafa Kemal eliminated the conservative opposition in a snap election in April 1923; after that, he declared the Republic in October 1923. Following the proclamation of the Republic and the consolidation of Mustafa Kemal’s power, the distance of Kemalists with other groups (e.g., Islamists, Kurds, and socialists) stretched. This situation increasingly continued after the 1924 Constitution came into effect.
The fact that it was a flexible and short Constitution based on an “assembly government system” without abrogating the Ottoman Constitution has been extensively discussed in different blog posts by some Turkish scholars. Although these well-known characteristics were remarkable, the political context of the Constitution-making was much more compelling, which is not sufficiently taken into account in Turkish and English literature. I want to draw attention to this point in this blog post.
It was a constitution enacted in light of the October Revolution of 1917. The October revolution has triggered the November Revolution in Germany, the Aster Revolution in Hungary, Biennio Rosso in Italy and other revolutions of the 1917-1923 period in Europe, and has naturally and intrinsically also affected Turkey, where the independence war waged with the support of Bolsheviks.
The relationship of the Anatolian movement with Russian revolutionaries goes back a long way. The first revolutionary generation of Ottomans closely followed the “young movements” around the world. The fact that they were called “Young Ottomans” (Genç Osmanlılar) or then “Young Turks” (Jön Türkler) in parallel with revolutionary organizations such as Giovine Italia, Junge Deutschland, Jeune Europe in the 19th century showed that a global movement inspired them. (Şinasi Bey, for instance, one of the pioneers of the constitutional revolutionaries in the Ottomans, is said to have joined the Paris Commune). Most importantly, at the beginning of the 20th century, they also increased their relations with these movements.
Nevertheless, their contact with the European movements was both a disadvantage and an advantage. It was a disadvantage since there always existed a doubt and the following question in the minds of the Young Turks (Jön Türkler) who were secretly organized in the face of Sultan Abdulhamid’s despotism: Could a constitutional revolution take place in an eastern Muslim-majority country with a strong centralized power structure like the Ottoman Empire?
It, however, was an advantage because they had learned from world revolutions. The Russian revolution of 1905 had showed them that a constitutional revolution could happen not only in regimes where weak governments are in power, but as well as in the most despotic regimes (click here for more information). On the other hand, the Iranian constitutional revolution had taught them that a constitutional revolution in a Muslim-majority country was in fact possible (click here for more information). Furthermore, the Japanese constitutional revolution had proven to them that there could be a revolution even in the far East. In other words, there could be a revolution in a despotic, eastern and even Muslim-majority country. In the Ottoman Empire, where at the intersection of these three, the conditions for the revolution were ripened. A Turkish bourgeois revolution took place in 1908 and the Ottoman Constitution re-entered into force within a year. Some of the revolutionaries in the 1908 revolution would later found modern Turkey in 1920.
The young Turks were inspired not only by the figures of the French Revolution, such as Danton, Robespierre, and Marat, etc., but also by Narodniks and socialists in Russia. For instance, Aleksandr Parvus, one of the then foremost Marxists in Russia, was the financial and political advisor of the Young Turks. After he left Russia, he worked as an editor of Türk Yurdu, the daily newspaper of Young Turks. Furthermore, he regularly wrote in Halka Doğru, one of the essential publications of Turkish populism.
The communication between Turkish and Russian revolutionaries is also rooted in exiles in Europe. For instance, Tunalı Hilmi Bey, the famous left-wing populist of that period, interacted with Leon Trotsky when he wrote “Un Projet D’Organiation Souverainet é du Peuple ex Turquie-Accompagné D’une Charte” in France in 1902. Such an extent that he claimed that the “Soviet model” was designed based on his thesis.
This interaction continued during the War of Independence. When Istanbul was occupied, Talat Pasha, a former young Turk and de facto nationalist political leader of the Ottoman Empire during World War-I, fled to Berlin and visited Karl Radek to convince the Bolsheviks to support the resistance movement in Turkey. Radek, the international Communist leader in the Soviet Union who was in a Berlin dungeon at the time, was convinced and had the Bolsheviks send gold and arms aid to the Anatolian movement led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha for some time.
Therefore, most of the MPs who came to the constituent assembly convened in Ankara in 1920 at the call of Mustafa Kemal Pasha were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks.
Composition of the Constituent Assembly
As İhsan Güneş shows in his detailed study, the constituent assembly included people from many different professional backgrounds (farmers, merchants, lawyers, journalists, bankers, clergymen, soldiers, police, civil servants, engineers, head-workers, doctors, and pharmacists). Those in their 30s were the majority. About a third of the deputies spoke foreign languages. Non-Muslims (due to the nature of the national liberation war) and women (as in other countries in the world at that time) were not part of the Parliament. The number of Kurdish-speaking MPs was not small. In terms of ideology, the scene was quite colorful. Socialists entered the Parliament and two of them were inf act appointed as ministers, Cami Baykut as the Ministry of Interior and Hakkı Behiç Bayiç as the Ministry of Finance. There were conservatives as well as liberals. However, the main characteristic of the assembly was that it was populist and nationalist.
In any case, the number of left-wing MPs in the Assembly was not insignificant. As a matter of fact, the six members of the Special Commission set to examine the draft constitution were those closest to the Bolsheviks. The head of the Commission Yunus Nadi Abalıoğlu and İbrahim Süreyya Yiğit were among the leaders of the “Green Army” (Yeşil Ordu), an Islamic version of the “Red Army”. The clerk of the Commission Mehmet Şükrü Koç was one of the most ardent opponents in the first Assembly of Turkey and a member of the People’s Socialist Party of Turkey (Türkiye Halk İştirakiyyun Fırkası). The Commission reporter İsmail Suphi Soysallı was one of the founders of the Communist Party (official) of Turkey. Other members of the Commission, Fuat Umay and Mehmet Vehbi Bolak, were among those who defended the need for stronger cooperation with the Soviet Union. Therefore, the majority of experts who took part in the preparation process of the Constitution were from the left-wing. Moreover, as the reporter İsmail Suphi Bey has clearly stated, the Constitution was inspired by the Soviet Union:
"I cannot say that any side did not inspire us. Maybe the revolutions that shined in the East and Russia had an effect on us. Maybe the World War, the oppressed class of every nation, every nation. Be sure, gentlemen; every nation consists of two classes: the ruling class and the other. If the old lands of this country remained intact (with all its scope), we are obliged to work again for the wishful administration of this country, to make a revolution in the administration.”
Indeed, the emphasis on the unity of powers centralized in the Assembly rather than on the separation of powers indicates this inspiration. Besides, comprehensive provisions on local governments were also one of the effects of the “soviet” model. Undoubtedly, one of the most discussed issues in the Constituent Assembly was the proposal of “administration through councils” (şurâdan şurâya yönetim)
Preamble of the Constitution
The 1921 Constitution is a short text consisting of 24 articles and it has no formal preamble. However, as Hans Kelsen and Liav Orgad said, some constitutions have a preamble in the material sense. This was the case with the 1921 Constitution.
It is actually not without question to call this text as a constitution because no bill of this instrument was submitted to the Parliament. What was presented to the Assembly was a program. It was decided to transform the first four articles of this program into a statement. So, we can admit that this statement is a preamble in the material sense. This preamble reveals the ideological tone of the Constitution. Here, anti-imperialism was dominant, not in a xenophobic sense, but closer to the Leninist meaning of the word:
“The Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, having the unique and sacred aim of rescuing the life and independence of people, purposes to save the people from the oppression and cruelty of imperialism and capitalism and to make them the true owners of sovereignty. (...) The Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey undertakes the duty to defend against the encroachments of the imperialist and capitalist enemies who assassinated the life and independence of the nation; encourages the army by reclaiming the traitors who from the inside try to deceive and confuse the nation by uniting with the enemies outside and; upholds the army as the equivalent to the nation's independence.”
I would like to conclude by clarifying the main purpose of this historical narrative. In Turkey, different segments of society can attribute different meanings to the Constitution of 1921. Some Islamists, for example, approach the Constitution of 1921 in a positive manner because of the Islamic references therein, while some Kemalists hold warm feelings towards it since the nation-state was established by its virtue. Also, there are many Kurds who are sympathetic with this document due to its decentralized qualities. Beyond all these approaches, however, there lies a fact which is neglected both in Turkish and English literature. This Constitution was prepared, inter alia, under the influence of the October Revolution was one of the essences of that inspiration. What connects together all these otherwise diverse groups is in fact this anti-imperialist point.
There are many distinguished works in Turkish language on the 1921 Constitution. Some of the relatively recent publications are as follows:
§ Dinçer Demirkent, Bir Devlet İki Cumhuriyet: Türkiye'de Özyönetim ve Merkeziliğin Anayasal Dinamiği (Ayrıntı 2017)
§ Ergun Özbudun, 1921 Anayasası (AAM 2008)
§ Gülden Çamurcuoğlu, 1921 Anayasası ve Egemenliğin Gelişimi (Astana 2016).
§ Rıdvan Akın, TBMM Devleti (1920-1923) Birinci Meclis Döneminde Devlet Erkleri ve İdare (İletişim 2014)
§ Sinem Şirin, Birinci Meclis Döneminde Yürütme Erki 1920-1923 (Legal 2017)