The Critical Corner
November 18, 2019
By Eddie Arnavoudian
I. Classes in the ANLM – peasants, Diaspora elites and the intelligentsia
The Armenian national movement was always an uneasy and unstable coexistence of different classes, strata and social forces in Armenian communities that stretched across Ottoman and Tsarist borders and beyond. Between the two main classes – the powerful and wealthy Istanbul-Tbilisi-Baku based Diaspora trading and establishment elites on the one hand, and the mass of Armenian peasants and artisans living in their historic homelands on the other - there was little community of interest. They shared no common geographic terrain nor did they share any decisive social and economic foundation or interest.
The Armenian peasantry that produced the Fedayeen in Ottoman-occupied historical Armenia was the largest, the most oppressed and the most impoverished class of society, living often in geographically and demographically fragmented and terminally disintegrating village communities. Among numerous sources Rouben’s ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’ (See Note 1) is stark in descriptions of the Ottoman State’s and the Kurdish fiefdoms’ efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate Armenian peasant communities by means of super-exploitation, violence, bribery, exorbitant taxation, forced migration and land seizure (Rouben, 1974, p172, 197, 213). Together with these went measures to further undermine Armenian communities by settling immigrants on confiscated Armenian lands and building new non-Armenian villages between previously adjacent Armenian ones (Rouben, 1974, p201, 213).
Threatened with virtual annihilation the Armenian peasantry had the greatest and most immediate interest in the overthrow of Ottoman socio-political structures and its exploiting and oppressing classes. With these forces it had no cause or interest for compromise or accommodation. Centuries of experience and now the danger of extinction taught that there was no ground for illusions in the capacity of Ottoman Sultan or later the Ottoman Young Turk to make meaningful concessions to the Armenian peasantry’s legitimate social, democratic or national demands. It was this peasantry and its village communities that produced the Fedayeen. Its armed resistance was prompted by the experience of uncompromising Ottoman tyranny.
It was otherwise with Armenian bourgeois and middle classes and its modern intelligentsia existing and developing in the Diaspora, far away from the ancient peasant homelands. Fixed into metropolitan Ottoman, Tsarist and European economic and political centers and relations the material interests of these classes were remote from the homeland. Within the Ottoman Empire, though subject to tyranny, the Istanbul-Smyrna Diaspora elites at least until 1915 did not suffer its full savagery. Indeed they thrived and expanded. In Istanbul segments of the Armenian elite frequently moved in the genteel surroundings of Ottoman luxury. In Tsarist Moscow and Petersburg and especially in Tsarist occupied Tbilisi and Baku a hugely prosperous Armenian bourgeoisie, despite acrimonious conflict with Russian economic competitors, enjoyed the protection of the Tsarist imperial state. Prospering within and dependent upon both Empires these classes had every interest and motivation to attain coexistence and compromise – with Tsarist and Ottoman-Turkish elites and with European imperial powers increasingly holding Ottoman fortunes in their greedy grasp.
Despite fundamental differences of interest, historical and political circumstances during the 18th and 19th centuries pressed together the homeland peasants and the Diaspora elites. An isolated, fragmented peasantry imploding under the weight of Ottoman oppression required alliances with dynamic and developing urban economic and social classes as a condition for their emancipation. Alone, even with the Fedayeen rural Armenia was visibly failing to halt Ottoman devastation. In historical Armenian communities the small urban constellations in Van, Erzerum and Kars were of insignificant magnitude compared to the task at hand. The distant Diaspora elites remained sole candidates for any national compact.
For their part Armenian elites were also in need of allies. Existing primarily in imperial capitals or other Diasporan urban centers, they had no mass social base and so lacked the clout with which to secure their positions against State tyranny and the challenge from new and growing Ottoman, Turkish, Tsarist, Georgian or Azeri economic elites. An alliance with an increasingly rebellious Armenian peasantry would offer them this clout. Diaspora elites moreover had an interest also in sponsoring limited homeland reforms. These would better enable them to control the peasant movement and hold at bay any threat of real Armenian uprisings that could be used against Armenian elites by their Ottoman or Tsarist competitors.
Though implacably divergent political, social and economic conditions rendered an enduring alliance for national liberation well neigh impossible, a fragile, contradictory unity did come into being. The historic vehicles here were the political parties of the ANLM – the Armenakans and more importantly the Social Democrtic Hnchak Party (Hnchak) and the ARF. These parties founded, staffed and led by radical segments of an Armenian intelligentsia that was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the homeland peasantry.
Alas this intelligentsia was never a consistently revolutionary force possessed itself of a social and class bent for compromise and accommodation with imperial status quo. It was born of, supported and financed by the Diaspora elites. Operating primarily from the Diaspora in contrast to the peasantry it definitely had something to live for. From Istanbul, Baku and Tbilisi and elsewhere, it had its network of schools, publishing houses, newspapers and journals, theaters and clubs. Its relatively secure and privileged conditions of life also removed it from the direct and brutal experience of imperial oppression suffered by the homeland peasantry.
As they developed relations with Turkish intellectuals educated in the same European universities they studied at, segments of the intelligentsia believed that Armenian life could indeed be improved within the Ottoman Empire. In these future Young Turks Armenian activists encountered men who rounded on the Sultan and his Empire with democratic rhetoric. This played its part in nurturing the belief that new Turkish elites were amenable to Armenian democratic demands. This in turn generated that unwarranted willingness for compromise as an avenue for political reform and national emancipation.
This intelligentsia and the political parties it created proved therefore to be constantly vacillating, with its politics oscillating between the demands and pressures of the Diaspora elites and the homeland peasantry. In the course of the ANLM’s evolution the influence of the Diaspora elites on its political parties was to weigh more decisively than that of the Armenia peasantry and artisans. Together with the pressures of the intelligentsia’s own social and class origin, elite interests were to eventually prevail. After the terrible massacres of 1895-96 the ARF leadership seeking to hold a multiplicity of opposing interests in balance steadily but decisively tipped the scales in favour of the elites hopes for compromise and accommodation with Ottoman-Turkish powers.
The ANLM leadership’s trend to compromise and accommodate was reinforced by the particular form of its nationalist politics. As nationalist parties the Hnchaks and the ARF both invoked an overarching ‘national interest’ that took into account the needs of the privileged Diaspora elites. In contrast the Fedayeen as armed defenders of the peasantry represented their local rural peasant communities alone. Opposition was inevitable and from the outset tensions surfaced foreshadowing an eventual breach.
II. Antagonisms – Fedayeen versus political parties
Though still inchoate, elements of antagonism between the political parties and the Fedayeen are evident as early as 1891 even as their relations were closest and in the greatest harmony. An article by ‘Mushegh’ from Daron in the Hnchak journal outlines his idea of independent, self-reliant and armed liberation struggle that in contrast to the Diaspora political leadership pins no hope on European imperial powers or on Ottoman-Turkish reform:
‘We can expect nothing from the English or the French. The Russians are as bad as the Turks. Only with our solidarity…can we free ourselves from this condition…and live in peace…We have spilt many tears…let us now spill some red blood…Priest and Bishop preach that we pray…but with such ways even they cannot free themselves from the catastrophe of the Turk and Kurd (Rouben, 1974, p60-61)
Against what he judges to be a narrow standpoint, Rouben presents what he thinks as Hnchak leader Mihran Damadian’s wiser, more ‘political’ vision. Damadian believed that the homeland could expect:
‘…help from Christian Europe that would not remain indifferent to Armenian suffering…Damadian did not criticise the clergy…and directed the people’s sight to their distant (Diaspora) brothers and to European powers (Rouben, 1974, p60-61).
Even in this early revolutionary stage the Hnchak leader’s outlook is stamped with features that defined the Armenian national movement’s politics from the very beginning. Its tactics and strategy were designed not to develop independent struggle in the homeland but to secure reform from forces external to homeland communities – whether they be European imperial powers, the Diaspora elites or segments of the Ottoman state and its elites that were to eventually enter the stage as the nationalist Young Turk movement.
Potential social and class conflicts were also developing in the relations between the peasantry and the tiny better off sections of homeland town and village leaderships. These became manifest especially after the post-1895 ARF drive to organize villages by setting up political committees and armed units across rural Armenia. Of course a necessary project, but ‘the commanding positions’ in ARF committees ‘were held by local merchants (centered in the city of Van) and by intellectuals’ and in very remote rural areas ‘by the better off and more influential peasants (Chormissian, 1974, p354-5).’
Albeit tiny, these slightly privileged strata did have vested interests in the status quo and so like the Diaspora elites they also inclined to reform and compromise. Rouben wryly notes that ‘the greatest number of spies and traitors serving Ottoman power came for these classes and these surroundings (Volume 3, p69).’ Rather brutally Chormissian concludes:
‘Most especially in rural regions, (Armenian) notables formed the ARF’s governing element that kept the miserable peasant youth in a state of passive subordination (Chormissian, 1974, p358-9).’
It was to these political committees that the ARF attempted to subordinate the Fedayeen.
Polarization was further manifest in later disputes about relations with Turkish and Kurdish forces. Acknowledging the demographic diversity of historic Armenian homelands the ARF rightly worked to build bridges with Turkish, Assyrian, Kurdish and other opposition forces. The Fedayeen did not oppose alliance with oppressed and exploited Turks and Kurds now sharing what had been historically Armenian lands. They even fought to defend them against the Ottoman and Kurdish elites. But what they could not accept were those alliances with Kurdish elites and Turkish state officials that were hallmarks of the ARF’s efforts.
The ARF leadership ‘had constant meetings and discussions with Kurdish leaders, even those that had participated in the massacre of Armenians (Rouben, 1974, p134).’ Antranik immediately grasped the futility of such efforts: ‘if they are free to plunder, kidnap and kill, what reason do they have to unite with their victims (Simonian 2009, p158-159)!’ As allies among the Turks the ARF pinpointed not the common people but segments of the Turkish elites, ‘discontented government officials and military personnel’. Indeed Rouben notes that ‘in 1903…a number of such Turkish soldiers and officers even joined the ARF to fight against the Turkish government (Rouben, 1974, p251).’ It was alas such forces that were to form the core of the Young Turk movement.
However during the ANLM’s first, revolutionary stage relations between the political leadership and the Fedayeen, in the homeland at any rate, were characterized by a promising unity. In this early period incipient differences went together with superb joint endeavors to organize the people in their immediate struggles. Operating in historic Armenia, both the Hnchaks and the ARF played a hugely important role enhancing Fedayeen fighting capacities.
In close and equal collaboration there was little immediate divergence as both political parties bonded with the Fedayeen movement to protect and develop the liberation struggle in the Armenian homelands. Political leaders such as Mihran Damadian, Murat Boyajian and the ARF’s Hrair to mention but three were instrumental in working to mould together often isolated Fedayeen into successful guerrilla forces. They worked determinedly to overcome the narrow local, provincial antagonisms and conflicts that so plagued Armenian communities and prevented unified and therefore more effective resistance (Rouben, 1974, p98-100, 103-105).
But deep-seated contradictions came to the fore in the aftermath of the 1895-95 massacres.
III. Debating the future
The 1895-96 massacres in which nearly 300,000 died were a body blow to the social, economic and demographic fabric of Armenian communities. Slaughter, forced migration, confiscation of lands, destruction of Armenian villages and the collapse of agriculture and artisan production further shattered the potential of Armenian national development.
These massacres together with the 1894 Sasun Uprising also highlighted damaging weaknesses besetting the Fedayeen movement. Resistance was debilitated by provincialism. It was localized, isolated and un-coordinated. In Sasun’s 1894 battles Van, a significant ANLM centre had been but ‘an onlooker’.
‘Sasun battled alone for its survival. Though neighboring communities were aware of what was happening none offered any help whatsoever (Rouben, 1974, p114).’
Ottoman power exploited such provincialisms. Attacking Sasun it eased repression in Mush to prevent the latter joining the resistance (Rouben, 1974, p296).’ A year on, Sasun failed to come to Van’s aid in its resistance that resulted in the death of 600 tested Armenian fighters.
These setbacks and the immense demoralization that followed forced a major re-evaluation of ANLM strategy and tactics. The initiative was taken by the ARF that post-1895-96 supplanted the Hnchaks as the undisputed leader of the ANLM.
In the homeland, strategic debates marked by tense clashes between Antranig and Hrair centered on the relationship between the Fedayeen and the ARF, the former defending their military autonomy while the latter sought to subordinate the Fedayeen to its political leadership. Both Antranig and Hrair were dedicated revolutionaries. Both joined the ARF. For all their often bitter animosities both were fully committed to the development of a revolutionary force capable of fighting for Armenian communities in their historic homelands.
Opposing Antranig and his Fedayeen co-thinkers Hrair insisted that liberation was impossible through guerrilla warfare alone. ‘The people were the sole foundation for a broad popular movement (Rouben, 1974, p199).’ They had to be politically prepared for nationwide mass insurrection, a project that required long term popular education and national political organization to overcome provincialism and political backwardness. Hrair was not opposed to armed struggle but ‘partial battles and confrontations were damaging’. The Fedayeen had to be incorporated into the project of mass political organization. To this end Hrair demanded reigning in and subordinating the Fedayeen to the ARF’s local political leadership. So he ‘opposed unauthorized Fedayeen presence in Armenian villages (Rouben, 1974, p199 – See Note 2).’ Some of Hrair’s more partisan supporters went further arguing that:
‘It was time to disband the Fedayeen formations and focus solely on wide popular organization (Rouben, 1973, p297)
In Antranig Hrair confronted an unyielding opponent insisting on both the primacy and autonomy of armed struggle. Antranig ‘categorically rejected’ Hrair’s thinking believing that ‘conditions in western Armenia’ were not conducive to ‘mass insurrection (Simonian, 1996, p103-105). Giving Antranig’s position a one-sided formulation, Simonian writes that for Antranig it was ‘the guerrilla who would free the people from the shackles of tyranny’ and therefore ‘it was the people who should serve the Fedayeen, rather than the Fedayeen serving the people.’ The foundation of the movement, Antranig believed, ‘must be an elite guerrilla force’ that must remain independent of all political organizations.
Antranig’s formulations may have suggested a disdain for the masses and their political organization, but at its core there was a correct insistence on the indispensable role and immediate necessity of armed struggle. On the other hand Hrair correctly insisted on the absolute necessity of a nationwide political organization as a condition of advance.
Besides serving nationwide resistance, mass political organization was necessary to secure popular support to feed and clothe the guerrilla forces, to provide them with safe shelter, financial aid and a steady stream of recruits. Political organization would not win people over if the movement could not defend them in their everyday life of endemic state repression and brigandage. Moreover work for mass political organization without armed protection would invite even more severe slaughter. However the debate was resolved it would have to take into account the fact that armed self-defense was indispensable given ‘the ever present danger of attack, massacre and plunder (Chormission 1974, p351)
Expressed often in rigid, one-sided formulations Antranig’s insistence on the centrality of armed struggle and Hrair’s proposals for mass political organization were both correct. Without their coherent combination the ANLM had little future. Yet a united political-military strategy was beyond the ANLM’s vacillating political leadership bending increasingly and decisively to the interests of the Diaspora ruling elites. Antranig’s and Hrair’s dedicated efforts were overridden by the ARF’s strategic drive for an alliance with the Young Turks.
Note 1: Rouben was a leading ARF figure. His memoirs despite hints of self-serving apologia, despite disapproval of an independent Fedayeen movement and signs of unpleasant disdain for Antranig offers still an excellent insight into the Fedayeen movement and its relation to the travails of rural Armenian communities battling for survival.
Levon Chormissian, 1974, ‘Overview of a Century of Western Armenian History’, Volume 2, 576pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1972 ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 1, 403pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1973, ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 2, 1973, 328pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1974, ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 3, 1974, 373pp, Beirut
Garo Sassouni, 1965 ‘A critical look at the 1915 Genocide’, 64pp, Beirut
Hrachig Simonian, 1996, ‘Antranig and His Times’, Volume 1, 752pp, Yerevan
Hrachig Simonian, 2009, ‘On the Paths of National Liberation’, Volume 3, 1128pp, Yerevan
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.
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