Losing touch with reality

Hegel wrote in a famous paragraph, “real is rational”. He also wrote that, “rational is real”. So, the argument cuts both ways. If so, being out of touch with (economic, but not only economic) reality is tantamount to being irrational. Is it too heavy-handed an argument? Or is rationality an inalienable part of modernity? If so, were humans not (at least not fully) rational before the Reformation and the Enlightenment? In modern and post-modern times, if a society loses its anchor, and deviates from its directional derivative, what sort of irrationality will it face around the corner? Is a return to the Middle Ages possible, as Alain Minc claimed 27 years ago? Is our current (economic, political, ideological) reality rational? If not, how should we deal with this incompatibility problem?


In many ways, Kemalist modernization went astray in the 1950s and the idea of the ‘Kemalist prime’ was lost. For example, İsmayıl Hakkı Baltacıoğlu sounds quite different in 1928 and in 1955. When he looked back at religion and revolution in 1955, the radical modernism of 1928 gave way to a much more lenient republicanism and to an effort to reconcile the radical modernism of yesteryear with the increasingly popular religious conservatism. Yes, religious conservatism was just as fashionable in 1955 as it is today. Yet, Baltacıoğlu thought of religious reform as a correlate to nation-building. He reasoned in terms of tradition versus culture and he rejected Ziya Gökalp’s principal distinction between culture and civilization. Tradition could encompass manifold cultures, he believed, and therefore didn’t see the nation as a unipolar and mono-cultural entity. His emphasis on the universality of the Lutheran project of translation of

Scriptures into national languages and the importance of tradition – and its making as the essence of the nation-building initiative – sound quite astonishingly modern. Hence his insistence on translating the Koran into Turkish, a project he himself completed. He claimed that the translation of holy texts into vernaculars lies at the very core of Reformation.


Somewhat unsurprisingly, the conservative ascendance of the 1950s never saw in him a natural flag waver. By the mid-1950s, the socalled American brand of secularism, which would allegedly be more flexible compared to French laicism, had already replaced the radical laicism of the 1930s. We should not let pass unnoticed that the Kemalist “subprime” of the 1950s largely coincided with the making of the conservative and anti-communist right. What is unmistakable about the advent of the Turkish right is twofold: it amounts to a re-interpretation of Kemalism, not to its complete denial, and it evolved hand in hand with anti-communism against the backdrop of the Cold War. Hence, the conservative centre-right did not criticize all the words and deeds of Kemalism in its prime. It only stripped it from its (more virtual than real) coherence and accepted some Kemalist principles while discarding others. Modernism would be welcome as long as it amounted to technical and scientific westernization, but not to a wholesale adaptation of western culture. Even right-wing conservatives could easily digest Kemalism, if only it could discard a few excesses, notably vis-à-vis Islamic practices. Furthermore, too heavy-handed an Enlightenment could, shored up by the banning of religion from the public discourse, naturally give way to a materialistic interpretation of Turkish history, and that could be the last vestige of the ideological slippery slope leading to communism. Because anti-communism was a built-in ideological feature of the centre-right, an “excessive” modernism couldn’t be tolerated because it would pave the way for communism – or so thought all right-wing politicians from 1950 onwards. Today the dangerous omens to the Turkish right are not communism but too much modernity, too much rationality, too deep an embracement of “western values.”


Peyami Safa’s unsung classic, Türk İnkılabına Bakışlar, published in 1938, made it clear that Kemalism in its prime didn’t have a wide appeal. He explained this failure by repeating Ziya Gökalp’s well-known argument, dressed in new garb. According to the latter, western civilization could – and should – be imported selectively, in parts but not necessarily in its totality. Turks had to embrace “western sciences” and the “techniques” of the West, but not its values and its culture. Indeed, since then Turkish intellectuals have repeatedly discussed whether such a separated hyper-plane existed or not. In 1939, right after Atatürk’s death, Peyami Safa openly claimed for the first time that Kemalist Enlightenment had been – at least partly – a failure because it had tried to import the western world in toto and had not taken into consideration the deeply-seated roots and ramifications of Islam. There couldn’t be any short-cut, and there was no easy road to success and to societal change. Change had to come slowly, and not from above. If pious people had not committed to religious reform, a secular hand’s touch from the outside could only embarrass true believers. Kemalist Enlightenment was a touch of fatuity as it were, but it had none

theless passed without changing the fundamental nature of things: the social tissue had remained intact. There is a grain of truth in this argument, but as such it is a gross exaggeration. The Ottoman-Turkish Reform and Enlightenment had been underway for a century when the republic was founded in 1923. The ideas of laicism, modernism, westernization didn’t come out of thin air, and Mustafa Kemal didn’t found a new state or a republic out of the blue.


Peyami Safa, Hilmi Ziya Ülken, İsmayıl Hakkı Baltacıoğlu, Ali Fuat Başgil, and Mustafa Şekip Tunç played important roles in the canonization of restoration. Osman Turan and Durmuş Hocaoğlu performed intellectually appealing roles and addressed more the far-right more than the centre-right. It is interesting to see how many ideas that have been omnipresent since 1960, even till today, were clearly articulated in the early 1950s. Baltacıoğlu sounds rather modern, even radical, with his insistence that the Koran be translated into local languages. He claimed that Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was the decisive moment and essence of the Reformation. Başgil and Turan are more typical conservative traditionalists. In fact, whatever ammunition latter-day Islamists had in their arsenal was already supplied by Başgil and Turan. The claim that freedom of conscience and religion was all that mattered, not laicism or suchlike, as well as the approval of secularism over French-style laicism are already present in both Başgil’s and Turan’s writings. The “organic” view of development, which was fashionable in the late 1980s among former leftists, was also present in their oeuvre in fully developed form. According to them ,“Organicism” was all that mattered in a society’s slowly progressing life. Even constitutions don’t change much in a society’s organic evolution. What matters for nations is beyond jurisprudence. What matters isn’t economic or legal or even political. These right-wing thinkers believed that sociology and social evolution were keys because the ultimate truth lied deep in the social tissue. If so, why bother with human rights, political reforms, freedom of speech, trade-unions, political parties, ideologies? What was bound to happen was bound to happen anyway.


A built-in mechanism within the conservative right-wing was firmly established from day one. Furthermore, over the years the conservative centre-right developed historical reflexes to the effect that nationalism and religion mattered much more than liberalism. Liberalism has always been embedded in conservatism and the so-called centre-right conservatism, in turn, was not distant from the nationalistic and religious extremes of the critical mass. Being at the centre, nonetheless, and being in a position to address to the median voter electorally, may have truly helped conservatism to tame the radical ends of nationalism and Islamism. The centre-right may have acted exactly as the opposite of a pencil sharpener as regards the extreme ends, but there is a limit to everything. As the critical mass accumulated many layers of nationalist, religious, and even outright backwards characteristics, the centre was itself transformed and moved further right. That shift was not discrete: it was, rather, continuous. Yet it remained visible and observable. The new centre has increasingly become more nationalist and more religious. As such, it could not perform the function of containment and curtailment the old centre was capable of doing vis-à-vis the far right. The obverse course gained the upper hand, whereby the far right was able to recast the new centre in its own image. The new centre was no longer conservative only: it began to show shades of regression and was more prone to become a reactionary movement as time went by. As conservatism lacked bite, reaction took the pole position in its stead. What was only a potential in the 1950s became a reality in the late 1990s and especially after the 2001 crisis – the norm became extreme conservatism.


However, there is a chance that a dramatic sea-change can happen. The main reason for this is that the old, more moderate centre has regained shape and has began to occupy the actual centre. A return to a political centre that is conservative yet rational may be within reach. The current ideological mix can’t lay the foundations for a modern and prosperous nation.

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