Politics and the peasantry in Turkey
The late sociologist Şerif Mardin’s “center-periphery” framework is perhaps the most influential theory of social development in modern Turkey. Mardin proposed that the defining theme since the late Ottoman era is a strong division between a powerful state and a weak periphery, with an elite center exerting control over peripheral social forces. Since it was first outlined in 1973, many have seen the “center-periphery” thesis as a key to unlocking dynamics in Turkish society. It has repeatedly been challenged as simplistic, but it continues to shape both intellectual and popular understanding of modern Turkey.
The first instance of the periphery imposing itself on the center in Turkish politics is widely seen as the transition to multi-party democracy after 1945, following over two decades of single-party rule after the declaration of the republic. This era is examined in “Politics and the Peasantry in Post-War Turkey” by Sinan Yıldırmaz, a member of Istanbul University’s Faculty of Political Sciences.
It is indeed a fascinating period. The center-periphery thesis is often exaggerated, but the years after the Second World War really were the first time that the rural peasantry – who at the time made up an overwhelming majority of Turkey’s population – became active political players. Parties realized that they needed to appeal to villagers, which transformed the peasants from passive subjects to active political players. The peasants suddenly became more visible and vocal, ultimately bringing the Democrat Party to power in Turkey’s first free election in 1950.
In the early republican years an ideology of “peasantism” was developed. This essentialized the peasantry as a symbol of the nation, defining it by the importance of its labor in production and the army. At the same time, the urbanization policies of the single-party regime depended on the separation of the urban and rural areas. Peasants were encouraged to remain in their villages in order to avoid differentiation and conflict among the classes. State-run “Village Institutes” and “People’s Houses” were set up across Turkey to this end, aiming to spread Kemalist principles and balanced development throughout the country, avoiding disruptive population movements.
Yıldırmaz shows how this plan was complicated by Turkey’s domestic political shifts and major international developments. The post-war period saw Turkey integration into the Western alliance and NATO, which led to significant economic, social and political shifts. Specifically, Turkey’s position in the U.S.’s Marshall Plan gave it a specific role in the reconstruction of Europe, part of a new and widespread development program as an alternative to Soviet Communist development plans.
Turkey’s position in the international division of labor reshaped its economic preferences, prompting it to embark on a much more agriculture-based economic development strategy. This meant the abandonment of statist industrial development pursued up to that point. “The role of Turkey during the reconstruction of Europe was that of the granary of Europe ... Turkey was to produce more grain with the help of foreign investment and more liberal credit policies,” writes Yıldırmaz. As a result, “the rapid mechanism of agricultural production was needed in order to establish the farm-market connection.” A new network of highways therefore had to be constructed to carry agricultural products to the market more efficiently, built in place of the railroads that had been prioritized by the previous regime.
The mechanization of agricultural production changed Turkey’s rural structure. Labor needs were reduced, while villagers were brought closer to the market through easier transportation to the cities. The dissolution of the rural structure triggered a wave of migration to Turkey’s cities and the “keep the peasants in their village” mentality had to be changed. The old regime’s rigid ideological and practical separation of urban and rural areas was no longer effective.
This wave of migration has traditionally been seen exclusively as a result of Turkey’s position in the Marshall Plan. But Yıldırmaz complicates that narrative. He argues that urbanization was largely encouraged by rapid population increases in rural families, which were spurred by early Republican development (particularly better healthcare), relative stability after the chaos of first two decades of the 20th century, and Turkey’s neutrality during World War Two. Most of the urban migration came from the Black Sea region, which was largely untouched by the Marshall Plan, as well as from the poorest Anatolian villages where landless sharecroppers were not affected by the new machinery.
Regardless of its cause, it is undeniable that migration had a massive effect on all aspects of urban life. The culture of the migrants was not transformed by the cities they moved to; the opposite was generally the case, with cities undergoing a kind of “ruralization.” “The abandonment of the main elements of bourgeois city culture in Turkey after the foundation of the new republic impoverished the existing urban culture,” writes Yıldırmaz. “The new republic tried to create a new urban culture ... But before the creation of this new urban culture was concluded, changing economic and political preferences caused a rapid rural migration movement.” Perhaps the most striking effect of the migration was the emergence of “gecekondus”: Makeshift slum-like settlements that for decades made up a majority of Ankara’s housing stock.
It is possible to argue that the effects (and tensions) of migration are still being felt today. Turkey’s rural population has fallen from over 80 percent in the first years of the republic to less than 10 percent today. This colossal social shift has for decades been behind much of the country’s political turbulence, from the left-right clashes of the 1960s and 70s to the spread of Kurdish militancy and Islamic radicalism.
Today, the urbanization process in Turkey is almost complete. Political Islam was a generational phenomenon rooted among migrant communities on the urban periphery in the 1970s and flourishing after the 1980s. Social and economic dynamics are always shifting and something new will inevitably emerge in the coming years.