Marx on the history of “the Eastern question” (1853)

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MECW, vol. 13
Pgs. 102-104

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In order to understand…all the actual complications in the East, it is necessary to cast a retrospective glance at its past history and development.

The Koran and the Mussulman legislation emanating from it reduce the geography and ethnography of the various people to the simple and convenient distinction of two nations and of two countries; those of the Faithful and of the Infidels. The Infidel is “harby,” i.e. the enemy. Islamism proscribes the nation of the Infidels, constituting a state of permanent hostility between the Mussulman and the unbeliever. In that sense the corsair-ships of the Berber States were the holy fleet of Islam. How, then, is the existence of Christian subjects of the Porte to be reconciled with the Koran?

According to the Mussulman legislation,

If a town surrenders by capitulation, and its habitants consent to become rayahs, that is, subjects of a Mussulman prince without abandoning their creed, they have to pay the kharatch (capitation tax), when they obtain a truce with the faithful, and it is not permitted any more to confiscate their estates than to take away their houses…In this case their old churches form part of their property, with permission to worship therein. But they are not allowed to erect new ones. They have only authority for repairing them, and to reconstruct their decayed portions. At certain epochs commissaries delegated by the provincial governors are to visit the churches and sanctuaries of the Christians, in order to ascertain that no new buildings have been added under pretext of repairs. If a town is conquered by force, the inhabitants retain their churches, but only as places of abode or refuge, without permission to worship.

Constantinople having surrendered by capitulation, as in like manner has the greater portion of European Turkey, the Christians there enjoy the privilege of living as rayahs, under the Turkish Government. This privilege they have exclusively by virtue of their agreeing to accept the Mussulman protection. It is, therefore, owing to this circumstance alone, that the Christians submit to be governed by the Mussulmans according to Mussulman man law, that the patriarch of Constantinople their spiritual chief, is at the same time their political representative and their Chief Justice. Wherever, in the Ottoman Empire, we find an agglomeration of Greek rayahs, the Archbishops and Bishops are by law members of the Municipal Councils, and, under the direction of the patriarch, [watch] over the repartition of the taxes imposed upon the Greeks. The patriarch is responsible to the Porte as to the conduct of his co-religionists: Invested with the right of judging the rayahs of his Church, he delegates this right to the metropolitans and bishops, in the limits of their dioceses, their sentences being obligatory for the executive officers, kadis, etc., of the Porte to carry out. The punishments which they have the right to pronounce are fines, imprisonment, the bastinade, and exile. Besides, their own church gives them the power of excommunication. Independent of the produce of the fines, they receive variable taxes on the civil and commercial lawsuits. Every hierarchic scale among the clergy has its moneyed price. The patriarch pays to the Divan a heavy tribute in order to obtain his investiture, but he sells, in his turn, the archbishoprics and bishoprics to the clergy of his worship. The latter indemnify themselves by the sale of subaltern dignities and the tribute exacted from the popes. These, again, sell by retail the power they have bought from their superiors, and traffic in all acts of their ministry, such as baptisms, marriages, divorces, and testaments.

It is evident from this exposé that this fabric of theocracy over the Greek Christians of Turkey, and the whole structure of their society, has its keystone in the subjection of the rayah under the Koran, which, in its turn, by treating them as infidels — i.e., as a nation only in a religious sense — sanctioned the combined spiritual and temporal power of their priests. Then, if you abolish their subjection under the Koran by a civil emancipation, you cancel at the same time their subjection to the clergy, and provoke a revolution in their social, political, and religious relations, which, in the first instance, must inevitably hand them over to Russia. If you supplant the Koran by a code civil, you must occidentalize the entire structure of Byzantine society.

Having described the relations between the Mussulman and his Christian subject, the question arises: What are the relations between the Mussulman and the unbelieving foreigner?

As the Koran treats all foreigners as foes, nobody will dare to present himself in a Mussulman country without having taken his precautions. The first European merchants, therefore, who risked the chances of commerce with such a people, contrived to secure themselves an exceptional treatment and privileges originally personal, but afterward extended to their whole nation. Hence the origin of capitulations. Capitulations are imperial diplomas, letters of privilege, octroyed by the Porte to different European nations, and authorizing their subjects to freely enter Mohammedan countries, and there to pursue in tranquillity their affairs, and to practice their worship. They differ from treaties in this essential point that they are not reciprocal acts contradictorily debated between the contracting parties, and accepted by them on the condition of mutual advantages and concessions. On the contrary, the capitulations are one-sided concessions on the part of the government granting them, in consequence of which they may be revoked at its pleasure. The Porte has, indeed, at several times nullified the privileges granted to one nation, by extending them to others; or repealed them altogether by refusing to continue their application. This precarious character of the capitulations made them an eternal source of disputes, of complaints on the part of ambassadors, and of a prodigious exchange of contradictory notes and firmans revived at the commencement of every new reign.

The real point at issue is always Turkey in Europe: the great peninsula to the south of the Save and Danube. This splendid territory has the misfortune to be inhabited by a conglomerate of different races and nationalities, of which it is hard to say which is the least fit for progress and civilization. Slavonians, Greeks, Wallachians, Arnauts — twelve million men — are all held in submission by one million of Turks, and up to a recent period it appeared doubtful whether, of all these different races, the Turks were not the most competent to hold the supremacy which, in such a mixed population, could not but accrue to one of these nationalities. But when we see how lamentably have failed all the attempts at civilization by Turkish authority — how the fanaticism of Islam, supported principally by the Turkish mob in a few great cities, has availed itself of the assistance of Austria and Russia invariably to regain power and to overturn any progress that might have been made; when we see the central, i.e. Turkish authority weakened year after year by insurrections in the Christian provinces, none of which, thanks to the weakness of the Porte and to the intervention of neighboring States, is ever completely fruitless; when we see Greece acquire her independence, parts of Armenia conquered by Russia (Moldavia, Wallachia, Serbia, successively placed under the protectorate of the latter power) — we shall be obliged to admit that the presence of the Turks in Europe is a real obstacle to the development of the resources of the Thraco-Illyrian Peninsula.

4 thoughts on “Marx on the history of “the Eastern question” (1853)

  1. This is a little light on economics isn’t it? Also note the Victorian notion of races and nationalities ‘fit for progress and civilisation’. I like the late Marx a lot better, the one who could appreciate the Russian mir as the basis for a Russian path toward socialism.

    Of course, socialist forces have in the 20th century been constantly at war/in struggle with reactionary Muslim forces (who were greatly aided by the Western reactionaries now calling for senseless wars in the Middle East).

    The Western ‘left’ is now under pressure to take ill-conceived positions to side with the two reactionary camp facing each other. I say lets support those Musselmans like the Kurdish fighters of PKK and YPG, and others who fit in neither category!

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