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Turkish Intellectuals



“Intellectual and the Transformation of the ‘Political’: An Analysis of the Metamorphosis of Turkish Intellectual in the Last Two Decades”, Eylem Akdeniz, Bilkent University

The term ‘intellectual’ has always implied a political connotation within the Turkish political history. Beginning with the early modernization movements, the intellectuals of the country have always been the vanguards of the modernization process and the political agents of Turkish political realm. In other words, in Turkey being an intellectual amounts to taking a political action (Belge, 1989). It might well be argued that, “saving the state” has been the fundamental paradigm specific to Turkish intellectual[1].

In that respect, ‘the political’ was the realm within which the constitutive aspects of the intellectual identity had been shaped and constructed. It was not until the eighties that such an understanding lost its prominence. Eighties implied the decline of the prominent role accorded to the realm of ‘the political’ as the site upon which intellectual identity was to be constructed. The period, while implying a deviation from the traditionally adopted paradigm of Turkish intellectual (that of, ‘saving the state’), has also given birth to a new kind of intellectual distancing himself/herself not only from the state but also from the very realm of “the political”. Then, the core assumption of the paper concerns the parallelism and interaction between two parameters: the transformation of the conception of politics and the transformation of the intellectual of the country. On that basis, the study aims to offer a general profile of intellectuals of the last two decades and a discussion over the nature of ‘political’ within the concerned period of time. The paper will focus on the continuities and ruptures within the whole body of intellectual discourse with regards to the pre-1980s. The fundamental question of the paper is whether the newly adopted attitude towards ‘the political’ implies the birth of a new intellectual or not.


The Legacy of the Past

The roots of the obsession of Turkish intellectuals with ‘the political’ and more specifically with the paradigm of ‘saving the state’ can be traced back to the late-Ottoman period. Most of the Ottoman intellectuals were bureaucrats and positioned at the heart of the state. The first generation of late-Ottoman intellectuals, shouldering the burden of avoiding the disintegration of the empire, retained the reflexes of saving, defending and protecting the state as the basic motivations behind their intellectual activities. Therefore, their radicalism was framed by their problematic relationship with ‘the state’. Mardin regards this problematic relationship with the state as an outcome of the social history of the intellectuals of the country and argues that this distinct attitude of late-Ottoman intellectuals derived from their commonly shared understanding of the “undeserved defeat of the Ottoman culture”[2] by the Western powers (1992:165). Accordingly, as a generation witnessing the disintegration of the empire, the Ottoman intelligentsia had associated itself with ‘the state’ and was never able to put distance from the state power. The situation was reinforced by the historical conjuncture within which the subjects of the empire collaborated with the Western powers in their struggle for independence.

The point is nowhere better expressed than in Belge’s assessment that the glorious past of the country, paradoxically emerged as the strongest hindrance for the intellectuals of the country (1995:127). That is, the missions of saving and protecting the state and initiating the modernization project were shaped by the pressure of the once glorious past. Many scholars share the belief that this problematic relationship of the late-Ottoman intellectuals was inherited by the Republican intelligentsia. As the Republican intellectuals defined their major task being the vanguards of the modernization process and the initiators of the project of reaching the level of Western civilization, they were far from questioning their position with regard to the state authority. In this sense, the question of the autonomy of the intellectual was alien to the early Republican intelligentsia. They tended to see themselves as the carriers of the modernist ideology of the newly founded Republic and shouldered the task of ‘enlightening’ the uneducated masses with a positivist outlook. This self-definition had been marked with a sense of dependence on the state. This so-called self-definition also self-imposed upon the intellectuals of the country certain tasks and continued to be a central consideration and priority for the future generations of intellectuals. Even the emergence of new generation of intellectuals raising their voice within a left-wing discourse during the sixties did not imply a radical break with this tradition. That is, despite its opposing ideological underpinnings, the Turkish intelligentsia, in the main, has refrained from problematizing the state and insisted on clinging to its traditional paradigm of “saving the state”[3].

Mardin claims that Turkish history has never witnessed a ‘cultural elite’ in the proper sense of the term (2001). The underlying assumption of Mardin’s argument implies the dominant position of ‘the political’ over ‘the cultural’ within Turkish intellectual landscape. In Mardin’s account, while engaging in politics, Turkish intellectual has always spoken from within a group rather than raising his/her own individual voice (1984). In this vein, parallel to the late-Ottoman intellectuals, adopting French positivism as the major pillar of their thought and activity, the Republican intelligentsia regarded the Jacobin mentality convenient and practical in delineating and reaching the goals of modernization. Therefore, this intelligentsia preferred to follow the path that the French revolutionaries had followed and defined their relation to ‘the political’ along the Jacobin lines. In this regard, Mardin offers a distinction between the ‘literati’, who speaks from within a group, and the ‘intellectual’ who is not only critical but also far from retaining any sort of a collective task. Needless to say, in Mardin’s view the Turkish ‘intellectual’ falls within the former definition and does not deserve to be called as an intellectual in the proper sense of the term (1984).

This analysis rests upon the assumption that contrary to German Romantic tradition which has always retained a problematic relation with the Enlightenment, French positivism had significant influence in molding the ideas of Turkish intelligentsia. Since the Nietschean conception of the ‘daemonic’ was alien to the Turkish intellectual landscape and Romanticism was the only vehicle to initiate the daemon, Turkish intellectual was never able to ‘confess’ his/her real thoughts which in turn brought about certain limits to his/her inner resources and creativity (Mardin,1984). This assessment suggests that the cost of inheriting the Jacobin mentality on the part of Turkish intelligentsia has been the theoretical and philosophical poverty of the prevailing intellectual tradition. Then, a negative causality has been constructed between the intellectual engagement and intellectual profundity. For instance, according to Hilmi Ziya Ülken, Turkish intellectual’s engagement is only political and this characteristic has put certain limits to his/her intellectual development (1992).

It is true that, the political engagement of intellectuals has been the dominant tendency in Turkey. As it is mentioned above, similar to the path followed during the late-Ottoman period, during the Republican era, intellectuals have regarded themselves as the vanguards of the modernization project and have been the voluntary carriers of the official and the founding ideology of the regime, that of Kemalism. They have occupied a prominent place within the Republican project as the missionaries of the transformation of the society. In this regard, their thoughts and  ideas have been shaped under the dominance of the official ideology. Even the opposing ideological stances, either from the left or right of the political spectrum, have retained the imprint of Kemalism. Then, Republican intellectuals have been the heirs of the former generations in the sense that they have been the vanguards of the westernization/modernization and have undertaken a civilizing mission in accordance with the impositions defined by the ruling elite.

In other words, undertaking a social role was the sine qua non of being an intellectual. However, the intellectuals having been aware of their historical mission of being the ultimate source of the societal transformation could not escape from experiencing an identity crisis. They took pains to define their own identity regarding the East/West dichotomy. The crisis experienced with regards to the East/West dichotomy has been the major preoccupation of the literary intelligentsia and the fundamental problematic of Turkish literature. Indeed, literature has been the principal terrain through which the intellectuals of the country have raised their voice. It might even be argued that, since the early days of the modernization Turkish intellectual has been associated with the literary realm[4]. Especially during the Republican period, prominent intellectuals were not only political figures but also the literary ones. This was also the case during the sixties. Sixties implied the rise of opposing ideological stances on the political scene which then found its reflection in the Turkish press and literature[5]. Within this period, the term ‘intellectual’ has been associated with ‘the left’ to a large extent and has almost become the synonym of the latter.

Nevertheless, despite the newly emerging issues and concerns, the story of the Turkish intellectual during the sixties and seventies was far from revealing any sort of break with the mentality of the former generations of intellectuals. Similar to his/her predecessors, the intellectual of the era, with a few singular exceptions, was willing to undertake the mission of obsession with the state without ever questioning the boundaries drawn by the official ideology. Accordingly, ‘the political’ was the realm within which the constitutive aspects of the intellectual identity had been shaped and constructed. It might even be argued that, during the sixties and seventies, almost everyone belonging to the intellectual circles shared the belief that political commitment was the precondition and even the major inspiration of the intellectual work.

As it has been already stated, such an understanding has begun to lose its prominence during the  eighties. Obviously, the political environment after the 1980 coup was decisive in this particular change. As it is well-known, in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, Turkey experienced an ideological renewal and political restructuring. Still, the issue cannot be simply reduced to the specific conditions of Turkey since developments throughout the world have also brought about a certain transformation within the frames of references not only of Turkish intellectuals but also of the intellectuals of almost all countries. ‘Post-modernism’, ‘radical democracy’, ‘globalization’ and ‘civil society’ have appeared as the most fashionable topics of either the academic or the intellectual landscape. Turkish intelligentsia have utilized these themes and headings as constitutive elements in defining their ideological and political priorities and more specifically their intellectual identities.

This background suggests that there has appeared a break within the intellectual formation of the country during the last two decades. The period implied a deviation from the traditionally adopted paradigm of Turkish intellectual (that of, ‘saving the state’) and has also given birth to a new kind of intellectual distancing himself/herself not only from the state but also from the very realm of “the political”.

The Early Signs of the Metamorphosis: Period After the 1980 Military Takeover

As the analysis of the eighties involves the transformation of the country on several grounds, that of economy, ideology and politics, the constitutive characteristics of the intellectuals of the period have been exposed to a significant transformation during the mentioned time period. Then, the first period of the changing nature of Turkish intellectual was opened up by the September 12, 1980 military coup. The coup destroyed and liquidated the leftist movements in the country and sent politically engaged intellectuals either to dungeons or to their homes. Outright bans and oppression put certain limits to the intellectual activities. The coup was to be equated with the ‘state repression’. Despite the oppressive environment it brought about, the early signs of the attempts towards ‘problematizing the state’ by the intellectuals of the country was one significant contribution of the coup of 12 September 1980. Therefore, beginning with the early eighties the issues concerned with the heading of  ‘problematizing the state’ appeared within the first ranks of the intellectual debates.

As indicated above, the efforts of ‘problematizing the state’ was an outcome of the environment created by the coup. However, there was one another major factor that facilitated such lines of thinking. It was the operating ideology during the eighties: new-right. In the eighties, Turkey underwent a process of political restructuring and ideological renewal. The period implied for a complete reorganization of the country’s political structure (Yalman, 2002). In 1980, Turkey began to liberalize its financial system in order to integrate with global financial markets (Cizre and Yeldan, 2000). With the  24th January 1980 decisions the import substitution strategy was abandoned and export-oriented capital accumulation model was adopted. This required the reduction of state intervention and the limitation of state power. However, the restructuring of the economy and the politics could only be legitimated through the effective functioning of a new hegemonic project. Özalizm was the solution to the problem. Under the leadership of T. Özal, then prime minister and president of Turkey and the leader of the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi), Özalizm was introduced as the new-right ideology articulating elements of liberalism, conservatism, nationalism and social justice into its political discourse (Erdoğan and Üstüner, 2002). The new hegemonic project, Özalizm, relied on the adoption of the rhetoric of free market and open economy and emphasized the instrumentality of market ideology. This anti-statist discourse was also responsible for the theoretical attempts of the intellectuals in ‘problematizing the state’.

The state repression of the 1980 coup and the anti-statist discourse of Özalizm did not only pave the way towards the ‘problematizing the state’ on theoretical and ideological levels, but they also brought about the  atmosphere convenient for the questioning of the official ideology. That is, during the mentioned period of time Kemalism, the official and long lasting ideology of Turkish Republic, suffered a severe crisis of legitimacy and began to lose its once pivotal role.

All these developments conditioned the ideas and thoughts of Turkish intellectuals and created the grounds for the emergence of a new intellectual profile considerably different from the previous one. In contrast to the intellectual priorities of the ideological and political landscape of the sixties and seventies, the concepts of ‘consensus’, ‘conciliation’ and ‘civil society’ emerged as the fundamental elements of the conceptual framework of this new profile. Many intellectuals occupying opposing places in the political spectrum began to share almost similar concerns about the questions of state and official ideology. The emergence of the ‘civil society’ debate on the agenda of Turkish intellectual life was a reflection of the mentioned developments. Intellectuals committed to different and opposing ideological standpoints shared the belief that the weakness of civil society was the main factor behind the failure of democracy in Turkey and emphasized the desirability for the renewal of civil society in the country. The concept of ‘civil society’ was exhausted by almost all political groups, -liberals, conservatives, social democrats, socialists and Islamists- as the central motifs of their ideological discourses. 

The debates around the ‘civil society’ and the efforts of problematizing the state and questioning of the official ideology, Kemalism, all indicated the erosion of the traditional paradigm specific to Turkish intellectual, that of ‘saving the state’. This erosion which implied a discursive shift also emphasized the early signs of a new portrait released from its former traditional reflexes.

Post-Political Intellectual of the 90s

12th September regime prepared the Turkish economy and polity to the new path of capital accumulation and paved the ways for the integration with the global financial markets. During the nineties, the liberalization of the economy gained a further momentum (Yalman, 2002). The implementation of neo-liberal policies generated social tensions due to the deterioration of income distribution. The hegemonic project of Özalizm continued to function as a mechanism relieving the tensions that were to be the outcomes of the extreme neo-liberal practices. Still, it was unable to overcome the demands raised by the political Islam and Kurdish movement. These two referred to the attempts of questioning of the modernist secularism and social project and the search for new references of identities. Kurdish nationalism and political Islam implied the loss of the relevance of existing forms of representation and they together appeared as a challenge against the official ideology. To sum up, “the political conjuncture in Turkey throughout the 1990s was dominated by the aggravating Kurdish question, the revival of the Islamic movement, and their suppression by the state” (Erdoğan and Üstüner, 2002:196).

The intellectual of the nineties was born within this environment. As it has been stated earlier, s/he was the product of an atmosphere which was conditioned and colored by a distorted individualism, a culture of ‘making an easy buck’, an extremely eclectic and degenerate market fetishism and social conservatism. Needless to say, the period has not given birth to one single profile of intellectual. There appeared differing profiles occupying opposing stances within the political spectrum. Still, they have shared almost similar reflexes and attitudes which might be labeled under the generalization of ‘the intellectual of the nineties’. They all shared a similar conception of politics and have almost had similar intellectual and political priorities. Accordingly, in order to draw the general portrait of the intellectual of the concerned period of time, the transformation within the content of politics in the country needs to be examined.

‘Civil society’ was the most fashionable theme of the eighties. In the nineties, ‘civil society’ debates continued to occupy a prominent place within the intellectual circles. However, despite the intellectual interest towards the theme, nineties have witnessed a paradoxical development in terms of the relationship between state and society: “while the impulse of the ‘civil society’ to engage in public life to express its grievances has grown, the insulation of the state from popular pressures has grown even further” (Cizre and Yeldan, 2002:493). The conceptualizations of civil society shared a common mistake: They all ignored the political nature of civil society and tended to regard it as an apolitical entity. Parallel to the neo-liberal understanding, ‘politics’ itself was stripped of its political content and reduced to a technical issue and in particular, to administration. In that sense, during the nineties, “the political” appeared to be a “shrinking realm in a physical and qualitative sense” (Cizre and Yeldan, 2000:495).  Intellectual of the nineties, in contrast to the his/her former predecessors, preferred to utilize the concept of ‘consensus’ and based his/her understanding of “the political” upon this single concept. Politics continued to exist as the major source of inspiration for the intellectual development. However, at this time its content was exposed to a significant change and reduced to “a practice of recognizing the other and of reaching a consensus, reject the friend-enemy relations, regard “ideological” or antagonistic conceptions of politics as illegitimate, and limit the sphere of the political to a democratic play of differences and a plurality without antagonism” (Erdoğan and Üstüner, 2002:196). Relying on this understanding of “the political”, intellectuals have gathered around  “post-political discourses” (Erdoğan and Üstüner, 2002) of second republicanism, civil Islamism and post-liberalism. All these three discourses have shared a criticism of the state and the official ideology and regarded the democracy as a virtue in itself. The “post-liberal intellectual” who has born out of these discourses has tended to maintain a distance towards any sort of antagonistic politics. S/he has offered the “peaceful coexistence of differences” without even considering the constitutive power of “the political”. In that vein, s/he insisted to retain the similar dilemmas, reflexes, motivations and missions of the former generations of intellectuals with the exception of an antagonistic conceptualization of “the political”.

Eylem Akdeniz, Bilkent University.

This paper is presented at the Middle East History and Theory Conference, The University of Chicago, April 30th and May 1st, 2004, Chicago, Illinois.


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[1] It should be reminded that even the primary work of a prominent figure of Turkish history claiming to be liberal, Prens Sabbahattin, retains the title of “How Turkey Might be Saved?” (Türkiye Nasıl Kurtarılabilir?). This might be taken as an early indicator of the dominance of the paradigm of ‘saving the state’ within the intellectual landscape of the country.

[2] Mardin offers a comparison of the Ottoman intellectuals with the intellectuals of Austrian-Hungarian Empire and argues that although intellectuals of both the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had been the witnesses of the disintegration of their countries, they had generated different reflexes towards the process which in turn determined their differing relations with ‘the state’. While the former preferred to define its mission as defending the state, the latter was far from reaching at such a conclusion. Therefore, Mardin tends to regard the specificity of Ottoman culture as an impulse behind the feelings of “undeserved defeat” commonly shared by the Ottoman intellectuals (1992).

[3] Among the scholars drawing attention to the dependence of the Turkish intellectuals to the state, Sabri Ülgener was the first to underline this problematic relationship. See Sabri Ülgener, 1983. Zihniyet, Aydınlar ve İzm’ler, Ankara: Mayaş Yayınları. See also Yalçın Küçük, Aydın Üzerine Tezler, Ankara: Tekin Yay.

[4] Besides, literary realm has for a long time been regarded as the site of the leftist intellectuals. As Karpat points out, the country’s leading leftists were versed in Western literature and “the really significant leftist activity after 1925 was to be found in literature.” (1966:175). 

[5] As Landau states, during the sixties, “opening to the left” was the main characteristics of the fiction which had been dominated by the social themes. See Jacob M. Landau, Radical Politics In Modern Turkey,  Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974, p.25. 


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